Creams that contain medication, such as steroids, analgesics, and antihistamines, are designed for specific topical use and may have some advantages over oral medication. Anti-inflammatory creams may be used to reduce inflammation of the skin and underlying joints and muscles. There are essentially two types of anti-inflammatory medications — steroidal and non-steroidal. The majority of these creams sold over the counter in the United States contain hydrocortisone. The US Food and Drug Administration approved Voltaren®, the first non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream available by prescription, in 2007. Although doctors do prescribe topical medication, choosing an OTC cream leaves little choice aside from comparing brand, price and inactive ingredients.
Topical medication may be indicated for treatment of acute skin problems, such as dermatitis, and localized muscle or joint pain. By sheer design, topical medications are absorbed through the skin and bypass the stomach entirely. This can be a benefit for people who already take large amounts of oral medication, have difficulty taking pills, or have sensitive stomachs. It is important to note that for chronic skin conditions and chronic or widespread pain, anti-inflammatory cream has little or no effect.
Anti-inflammatory cream may be useful for temporary relief of joint or muscle inflammation caused by a minor injury, skin rash, sunburn, or other acute condition. While a doctor may recommend prescription cream for treatment of specific conditions, many people simply elect to use an over-the-counter cream for treatment of simple conditions. When choosing an anti-inflammatory cream, compare the active ingredients as well as inactive ingredients. Though not especially common, some people experience an allergic reaction to sorbitol, an emulsifier commonly found in many creams and personal hygiene products. If you have especially sensitive skin, you may want to consult a doctor before using any topical medication.
It is important to note that there is a difference between anti-inflammatory creams and pain relieving creams. Most pain relieving creams contain a topical analgesic that essentially helps disrupt transmission of pain signals to the brain, providing temporary relief from pain. Topical pain relievers do not contain any medication that reduces swelling or inflammation. Some conditions, such as minor sports injuries or arthritis flare-ups may benefit from the use of both types. If you have never used topical medications or are unsure which type you need, you should consult a doctor or pharmacist before use. Do not use anti-inflammatory steroid cream on infants or young children without first checking with your pediatrician.